I grew up on a farm on the south shore of Lake Hanska in Brown County, MN, in a community made up almost entirely of Norwegian immigrants and their offspring. We all spoke Norwegian, many of us as a first language.
When the bell rang at our country school, it meant that recess had arrived and we could speak Norwegian again.
I loved the hard consonants and gutteral sounds, and was only dimly aware of the distant English speaking world that surrounded me a few miles away.
Life was earthy. As a young boy I cracked corn cobs for the pigs, shocked oats, speared carp, trapped muskrats and hunted ducks and pheasants. The animal kingdom tried to even the score by dispatching crazed roosters and angry bulls to run me to ground.
When the temperature plunged to 20 degrees below zero we carried the occasional newborn calf into the kitchen and took turns feeding it from baby bottles until it could survive without a stove. In really cold weather, newborn pigs and lambs also shared our kitchen.
At summer picnics, dark-clothed, sombre relatives murmured about the weather and their crops while munching on lefse baked on our wood stove. I had yet to reach the age of significance so I wasn't introduced, but I observed my relatives carefully and came to know them by what was missing. All of them were farmers, and losing limbs was a price they paid.
If I ever have the time, I told myself, I will try to find out who those sober, hard-working folks were, why they had come so far to live, and where in Norway they had been born.
When the soldiers and sailors came home after World War II, the die was cast. They had left home as quiet, brooding and insular, like most of us. Now they were worldly, sociable and smiling. They seemed to have the world by the tail.
To my dismay, their Norwegian language and ways had become casualties of the war; the veterans now preferred English.
I saw this for what it was, a threat to my Norwegian identity, and took a stand. For some time I refused to speak English at all, even to my much older brother Amos, back from the Navy.
But my brave little boycott didn't impress anybody. After resisting the melting pot for 75 years, we melted quickly into the mainstream. For us, the Norwegian language and customs became casualties of the peace.
Now, visible traces of Norwegian roots in Lake Hanska appear mainly on gravestones.
Still, I have kept my word. And I have yet to find an ancestor from any place other than Norway.